ARLINGTON, Texas - Matt Russo of Manchester, Missouri, has a perfect record in international competition as a member of Team USA, and he'll look to maintain that streak this week in Cali, Colombia, nearly three years removed from his memorable debut with the team.
The 24-year-old left-hander will be one of 12 athletes representing the United States at the 2021 PANAM Bowling Adult Championships, which will get underway Friday with official practice.
Bowlers from across North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean will compete for medals in singles, doubles, trios, team and all-events, as they traditionally would at the PANAM Championships, but this year's visit to the 20-lane Bolera Departamental will offer a multi-layer competitive experience.
Competitors in Cali will be making the most of the trip and return to international competition, with their scores also being used for this year's edition of the PANAM Bowling Champion of Champions event and in qualifying for the 2022 International Bowling Federation World Cup and 2022 World Games.
The 2018 Champion of Champions event in Rio De Janeiro marked Russo's breakout performance and included four gold medals in four opportunities.
The time since has been a mix of ups and downs for Russo, who will return to Team USA competition as a far different player than he was in Brazil.
"Just because you've won doesn't mean you don't need to practice and can't get better," Russo said. "I won't say I was complacent after some of my success, but it wasn't until my first season on (the Professional Bowlers Association) tour that I realized I needed to get better at pretty much everything. Now, I think my mental game is better, I'm more open to suggestions and more open-minded when it comes to equipment."
Unlike the traditional Champion of Champions tournament, which includes just two men and two women from each country, the PANAM Adult Championships will have Russo surrounded by a talented cast of teammates that includes his fiancee, future brother-in-law and best friend.
The men's roster will feature Andrew Anderson, Cameron Crowe, Nick Pate, Kristopher Prather and Kyle Sherman, and the women's team will include Julia Bond, Sydney Brummett, Breanna Clemmer, Bryanna Coté, Gazmine Mason and Lauren Pate.
Russo and Lauren Pate got engaged during a memorable week at the 2020 United States Bowling Congress Team USA Trials, just before Russo won the event to earn a spot on Team USA after a one-year hiatus, and Pate made the team for the first time.
Her older brother, Nick, is a four-time Team USA member and three-time gold medalist.
Russo and Anderson, a four-time Team USA member and reigning trios world champion, have developed a special friendship, and Anderson has been instrumental in Russo's recent success on the PBA Tour.
"I'm excited to get back out there and hopefully continue what I started back in 2018," said Russo, now a four-time member of Team USA. "The biggest difference heading into this is that there's a whole group of us and a team event to focus on. We've got a young team, but we're experienced at different levels. We're all great friends, we're bowling well, we trust each other and we bring out the best in one another. On top that, I get to experience this with my family."
Russo and Lauren Pate met at Junior Team USA training camp in 2017, so red, white and blue are the core colors of the fabric of their relationship.
Following Russo's success in Brazil, he failed to retain his spot on Team USA for 2019. It was both disappointing and motivating and something Lauren was there to see him through.
He rebounded with a win at the 2019 Intercollegiate Team Championships with Webber International, collegiate player-of-the-year honors, a victory at the 2020 Team USA Trials and a PBA regional title.
While waiting for another chance to represent his country on the lanes, an opportunity delayed by COVID-19, Russo also was able to collect his first PBA Tour title, a win at the 2021 PBA Jonesboro Open in August.
"A lot has happened in the last three years, from winning the medals to going back to college and winning a national title to my first season on tour to winning Team Trials to my first PBA Tour title," Russo said. "To that point, almost my entire career had been about Team USA. Winning at the highest level was indescribable, and I hope there's still more to come. It has been an incredible ride, but there's still a lot more I want to accomplish."
Team USA's return to the lanes this week will be under the guidance of new head coach, Bryan O'Keefe, who has been a part of the program for more than a decade and was at the helm of Junior Team USA prior to taking on the elevated role in June.
Not only is O'Keefe familiar with the program and the players, he also has past knowledge of Bolera Departamental, which he visited when the facility hosted the combined PANAM Championships in 2016, before the women headed to the Dominican Republic in 2018 and the men competed in Peru in 2019.
"It has been more than two years since Team USA has competed internationally, but the players are sharp and excited and ready to get back out there," O'Keefe said. "We've had success in Cali, and we're familiar with the venue, both of which we hope will work to our advantage. There's also a lot of moving parts to the week, so we'll be very focused on taking it one day and one event at a time."
Beyond the medals up for grabs at the PANAM Adult Championships, each country will select two men and two women, whose scores will be used for the 2021 Champion of Champions. They will be bowling to earn their respective nations a spot in the upcoming edition of the World Games, which will take place in Birmingham, Alabama, in July 2022.
Their combined scores (separate for men and women) over the 24 games will be used to determine the four men's teams and four women's teams that will represent PANAM Bowling in Birmingham.
Additionally, total pinfall for all six bowlers, in their respective gender classifications, will determine the four men's countries and four women's countries that will head to the 2022 IBF World Cup.
The World Cup previously featured one man and one woman from each country, but a change to the format will allow more competitors to become part of a tradition that spans more than five decades.
As a final step in the preparation for the Cali trip, and 2021 IBF Super World Championships in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in November, all Team USA members selected to participate in the two events are at the International Training and Research Center in Arlington for two days of training and team building.
The mini-camp concept proved to be successful when used for the 2019 PANAM Bowling Men's Championships. It helped immensely with team chemistry, communication and equipment selection.
"Being able to get together for a few days is a great chance for us to shake off any rust, work on our communication and just get comfortable around each other in this team environment," O'Keefe said. "We're able to get a look at everyone's equipment, bowl on some different patterns and utilize the great resources at the ITRC before leaving for the events."
The list of men selected to represent Team USA at the World Championships (Nov. 6-15) includes Anderson, Jakob Butturff, AJ Johnson and Prather. Butturff and Johnson helped Team USA to the team gold medal at the 2017 World Championships.
The women's team will include Kelly Kulick, Danielle McEwan, Missy Parkin and Jordan Richard. All four have won gold medals at the World Championships.
The run of the World Championships in Dubai also will include the inaugural IBF Para Bowling World Championships (Nov. 12-16) and IBF Masters (formerly Senior) World Championships (Nov. 18-26).